Licorice Pizza is the kind of film I would love to see come out of Hollywood more frequently. It’s a movie that sets out to be a crowd pleaser, but refuses to pander to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t flood our senses with trashy romantic tropes, nor does it steer clear of comfortable familiarity. It doesn’t set out to do anything new or ground breaking, but it also maintains its own unique identity and voice. This is of course because Licorice Pizza is a film by one of the greatest filmmakers working in the film industry today, and he does not disappoint with this delightful and poignant movie.
Set in the San Fernando Valley, the movie follows the friendship between a confident to a fault fifteen year old boy named Gary Valentine, and the aimless but enchanting twenty five year old woman named Alana Kane. Gary is smitten with the older Alana from the very first time he meets her taking photographs for his high school picture day and, though Alana is hesitant, she humors the kid by taking him out to dinner. What follows is a sweeping odyssey of hilarious business ventures involving water beds, movie auditions, crazed actors on motorcycles, love, jealousy, and a bizarre encounter with eccentric movie producer Jon Peters thrown in for good measure. All of it is accompanied by a killer soundtrack, featuring classic tunes like David Bowie’s Life on Mars, and Paul McCartney's Let Me Roll It.
Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography can be separated into two eras. The first era spans from 1996 to 2002, a period in which he wrote and directed the films Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and Punch Drunk Love (2002). Not only were these early features produced and released within close proximity of each other, but they all paint a clear image of a director in his developmental stage. It is here where Anderson's style of filmmaking is at its most flashy and attention seeking, with complex long takes, frenetic editing, and scenes of characters having emotional breakdowns, being his most distinct trademarks. Then five years go by, and in 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson puts There Will Be Blood out into the world. This starts the second era of his career. Suddenly the emphasis on style is toned down significantly. The camera moves less, the editing becomes more relaxed, and the story and themes become the focus. It's this era that I feel gave birth to Anderson's greatest cinematic achievements. There Will be Blood is quite possibly the best film of the 21st century, definitely one of the most important, and The Master and Phantom Thread follow closely behind.
With Licorice Pizza, we find the filmmaker at a perfect balancing point between these two eras. The maturity and precision he obtained between Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood still shows clearly, but a hint of his more energetic and free flowing nature as a filmmaker shines through as well. He has returned to a cinema that is less concerned with themes and story, and more concerned with feelings and character relationships; and he returns to this so naturally that it's like he never left.
Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman are true revelations in their respective roles. Both seem incapable of giving off any false emotions. They are completely genuine. They don’t even seem to have any makeup on for the camera. We get to see their faces completely as they are, and both of them shine on screen. The fact that neither of them have ever been in a movie before works greatly to their benefit. Nothing holds us back from falling in love with these two dysfunctional characters they are playing.
The film is a nostalgic treat for anyone who either grew up in the 70s, or is familiar with movies from that period . By pairing 35 mm film with old camera lenses, Anderson and DP Michael Bauman achieve a look that makes you forget there's no one in the back of the theater operating an old-fashioned film projector. If I hadn’t known better I would have believed that I was watching a movie that was made in the 70s and had been digitally remastered for re-release.
There has been a lot of controversy over this movie concerning the age difference between the two characters. It is not unreasonable for this to raise more than a few eyebrows. However, after sitting down and watching the movie, I have come to the conclusion that there really isn’t anything to be upset about. The relationship between Gary and Alana doesn’t grow out of perverted desire, nor does it develop into it. The love they have for each other is something different, something that hasn’t been portrayed on screen before. It’s a love that is based purely on the fact that the two are better together than they are apart, and that's all that matters in the end. It’s a platonic intimacy, and if you’re wondering what that even means, just watch the movie.